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Ken Kesey and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

 

     One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with its meaningful message of

individualism, was an extremely influential novel during the 1960's.  In

addition, its author, Ken Kesey, played a significant role in the development of

the counterculture of the 60's; this included all people who did not conform to

society's standards, experimented in drugs, and just lived their lives in an

unconventional manner.  Ken Kesey had many significant experiences that enabled

him to create One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  As a result of his entrance into

the creative writing program at Stanford University in 1959 (Ken 1), Kesey moved

to Perry Lane in Menlo Park.  It was there that he and other writers first

experimented with psychedelic drugs.  After living at Perry Lane for a while,

Kesey's friend, Vik Lovell, informed him about experiments at a local V.A.

hospital in which volunteers were paid to take mind-altering drugs (Wolfe 321).

Kesey's experiences at the hospital were his first step towards writing Cuckoo's

Nest.  Upon testing the effects of the then little-known drug, LSD, "...he was in

a realm of consciousness he had never dreamed of before and it was not a dream

or delirium but part of his awareness (322)."  This awareness caused him to

believe that these psychedelic drugs could enable him to see things the way they

were truly meant to be seen.

 

     After working as a test subject for the hospital, Kesey was able to get a

job working as a psychiatric aide.  This was the next significant factor in

writing the book.  "Sometimes he would go to work high on acid (LSD) (323)."  By

doing so, he was able to understand the pain felt by the patients on the ward.

In addition, the job allowed him to examine everything that went on within the

confines of the hospital.  From these things, Kesey obtained exceptional insight

for writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  To make the novel seem as

realistic as possible, he loosely based the characters on the personalities of

people in the ward; also, his use of drugs while writing allowed him to make

scenes such as Chief Bromden's (The Chief is the narrator of the story.  He is a

Native American who happens to be a paranoid schizophrenic.) dreams much more

vivid (Ken 2).  As mentioned in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, "...certain

passages 3/4 like Chief Broom [Chief Bromden] in his schizophrenic fogs 3/4 [it] was

true vision, a little of what you could see if you opened the doors of

perception, friends (Wolfe 328).

 

     Ken Kesey's altered mental state while he wrote Cuckoo's Nest is what truly

makes it unique.  The novel's message of rebelling against authority was very

influential to the counterculture generation of the 1960's.  Kesey and his

writing became a key factor in a decade filled with drugs and anti-establishment

feelings.

 

     One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest takes place in a mental hospital in which

the patients' individuality is suppressed by the head nurse, Nurse Ratched.

When a sane con-man (Randle P. McMurphy) has himself committed to avoid a prison

sentence, the machine-like order that had previously existed on the ward is

immediately challenged.  Initially, McMurphy is a very selfish man whose only

desire is to cause problems for authority figures, Nurse Ratched in particular,

and to make life for himself as easy as possible.  Eventually, this all changes

as the battle between himself and Nurse Ratched becomes their battle for the

souls of the inmates.  McMurphy's struggle to "free" the other inmates is a

difficult one, ultimately resulting in his own destruction; however, through his

death, the other patients are able to realize their own sense of self and they

escape the ward.  Although McMurphy works to save all the inmates, the

schizophrenic, Chief Bromden, is the main target of his attentions.  The Chief

is the largest, most powerful man on the ward, but is made to feel weak and

inferior by staying there. Upon realizing his own value at the end of the novel,

Chief Bromden participates in the mercy killing of McMurphy which allows for his

own complete liberation, as well as that of the other patients.

 

      Entering the mental hospital a sane man, R.P. McMurphy only looks out

for himself; however, this all changes when he realizes the permanence of his

residency on the ward if he does not conform.  This motivates him to begin

working to save the other inmates on the ward and transfer some of his high

spirit into them.  His struggle to help them realize their individuality results

in his own mental decay and he is ultimately destroyed.

 

     In order to make himself as comfortable as possible, McMurphy initially

tries to defy authority and gain the inmates' trust for his own personal gain.

He is immediately a threat to the order that Nurse Ratched has created and

maintains.  While there is not supposed to be gambling on the ward, one of

McMurphy's first goals is to get the other patients to play cards with him for

money.  This is expressed when McMurphy says "...I came to this establishment...to

bring you birds fun an' entertainment around the gamin' table (Ken 12)."

Another way that he is able to disrupt the hospital's order is through his bold

laughter.  This is very disturbing because no one ever laughs in the mental

hospital.  The inmates are controlled and mechanized; the laughter suggests

personality, which would break down this order.  According to Chief Bromden, he

had not hear a laugh in years (11).  McMurphy makes it obvious right away that

he has no intention of letting the hospital's machine-like order consume his

identity.

 

      As a result off his rambunctious behavior, the inevitable battle between

McMurphy and Nurse Ratched begins.  During group therapy meetings, McMurphy does

not let Nurse Ratched have complete control as she has had in the past and as

she would like to continue.  He disrupts the meetings by provoking the other

patients to excitement when they make comments about their respective problems.

It also infuriates Nurse Ratched when McMurphy diverts the attention directed at

other patients towards himself.  Also, one particular scene displaying the

beginning of the battle between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy occurs when McMurphy

wants to watch the World Series.  He convinces the inmates to resist Nurse

Ratched by watching a blank TV screen, even when she turns off the World Series

(140).  The things that McMurphy does early in the novel to battle Nurse Ratched

are selfish and have the intention of being chaotic.

 

     Eventually, this all begins to change as McMurphy begins his struggle to

help save the other inmates.  He begins to conform slightly when he recognizes

the power that Nurse Ratched wields; he learns that he cannot be dismissed from

the hospital without Nurse Ratched saying he has been cured.  However, the other

inmates are not satisfied; they want him to lead a rebellion.  McMurphy's

rebellious nature goes from that of self-interest to that of devotion to helping

the other inmates find their freedom and individuality.  By doing so, he also

sees a means of escape for himself.  The first display of his new strategy for

defying authority occurs on the fishing trip that the inmates take.  This trip,

which is organized by McMurphy, helps the inmates realize that they can act for

themselves and returns to them some sense of self-respect.  Another example of

McMurphy's change from a nuisance to a savior is how he and the Chief resist

Nurse Ratched in the disturbed ward (a section of the hospital for those

patients who are considered the most insane or dangerous).  Trying to evoke an

apology from McMurphy and Chief Bromden for keeping another patient from having

an enema, Nurse Ratched fails and angrily sends the two men to have electro-

shock therapy.  Although McMurphy is weakened by this, the Chief takes his first

step towards being cured by telling the other patients of McMurphy's heroics

(277).  This is the first time that he has ever talked to anyone other than

McMurphy.  In an obvious response to McMurphy's devotion to him, the Chief

starts to realize his true self.

 

     In the end, McMurphy's struggle leads to his destruction; however, he still

becomes the inmates' savior.  By finding McMurphy's weakness, which is his

uncontrollable urge to always trick the other inmates out of their money, Nurse

Ratched is able to defeat him.  This is evident when McMurphy tricks the other

men into not believing that the Chief could lift the control panel.  As a result

of this unfair bet, McMurphy wins money from the other men, but loses much of

their faith in him (256-257).  However, McMurphy eventually regains their trust

and the inmates join him in the big party on the ward.  Because the party

involves breaking hospital rules, the inmates are forced into a situation in

which they will have to defend themselves.  This is McMurphy's final attempt at

leading the inmates to their freedom.  As a result of all his efforts to help

them, he has become worn-out, both physically and emotionally.  Taking on the

responsibility for the other patients has drained McMurphy of all his vibrancy

and individuality; however, it is almost as if his liveliness has been

transferred into the souls of the inmates.  Just as in the law of the

conservation of energy (energy can neither be created nor destroyed), McMurphy's

vitality must be sapped in order to give the other patients life.  In effect,

McMurphy has sacrificed his own sanity to make the others sane.

 

     The final conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy occurs when McMurphy

attacks her and reveals her sexuality by uncovering her large breasts(305).

McMurphy is taken away to be given a lobotomy 3/4 a surgical operation in which a

lobe of the brain, usually the frontal lobe, is cut out for the treatment of

psychoses 3/4 but Nurse Ratched no longer has control over the other patients.  By

concealing her womanly nature, she has been able to have power over the inmates.

To them, Nurse Ratched previously symbolized the cold, unfeeling, and mechanized

nature of the hospital; by revealing her womanhood, this facade is destroyed and

the men realize her weakness.  Now, although she defeats McMurphy physically, he

has actually won the battle because the other patients are able to escape.  In

order to ensure the Nurse's overall defeat, Chief Bromden proceeds in the mercy

killing of McMurphy.  His death finalizes the transference of his spirit into

the other patients; consequently, this allows for the complete liberation of all

the inmates.

 

     Using the Chief as the narrator of the novel, as opposed to McMurphy,

allows the reader to examine McMurphy's actions as being heroic, not mere

braggadocio.  Chief Bromden, through his behind-the-scenes analysis of

everything that occurs in the ward, is able to portray McMurphy's saga much more

subtly than if McMurphy had been the narrator.  By using the Chief's point of

view, Kesey enables the reader to see a patient (severely weakened by the

hospital's control over his individuality) eventually cured through the

persistence of another patience to make him realize his true self.  Because

Kesey does such an effective job in creating the Chief's schizophrenic state

early in the story, the reader is able to see him slowly regain his sense of

identity and thus one can truly understand the significance of McMurphy's help

in changing him.

 

     One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest should definitely be included in a list of

works of high literary merit.  It's message of fighting for individuality and

self-expression is portrayed with immense skill.  Kesey's willingness to

experiment with the revolutionary style of writing in an altered state of

consciousness should be highly regarded.  This novel is a symbol of the 1960's

counterculture and should be considered a classic of its time.  Not only were

its issues important during its own decade, but many are still relevant today.

 

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